Thursday, July 10, 2008

Figuring out Obama

There has been a flurry of disapproving blog posts about Obama's recent positions on the death penalty, FISA and late-term abortion. He spoke in support of the death penalty in the case of child rape; he voted "yes" on the FISA compromise, and commented that he felt late term abortions should only be allowed when the health of the mother was at stake - not for mental distress.

Many feel he has swerved rightward now that he has become the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party; or as Bob Herbert put it recently, "lurched with abandon."

But has he really? Or is he simply being the same Obama he has always been, but now that the fog of the primary campaign has lifted, we can now pay more attention to what he's actually saying about the issues, rather than the "he said, she said" of the primaries?

Obama has said all along that he will reach out to the other side of the aisle. He has operated as a consensus builder all his life. He has said he will be different from other politicians. Perhaps one way he is different is that he can actually see more than one side of an issue. What a concept!

Take FISA. Yes, he was opposed to the bill but changed his mind and voted for it. But he apparently felt he had a good reason. Here is what he says about it:

"This was not an easy call for me. I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect. I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power. It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration's program of warrantless wiretapping. This potentially weakens the deterrent effect of the law and removes an important tool for the American people to demand accountability for past abuses..."

"But I also believe that the compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.

The Inspectors General report also provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted. It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues..."

"Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise. I do so with the firm intention -- once I’m sworn in as President -- to have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future..."

"I learned long ago, when working as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, that when citizens join their voices together, they can hold their leaders accountable. I'm not exempt from that. I'm certainly not perfect, and expect to be held accountable too. I cannot promise to agree with you on every issue. But I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country....Democracy cannot exist without strong differences. And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That's ok. But I think it is worth pointing out that our agreement on the vast majority of issues that matter outweighs the differences we may have. After all, the choice in this election could not be clearer. Whether it is the economy, foreign policy, or the Supreme Court, my opponent has embraced the failed course of the last eight years, while I want to take this country in a new direction. Make no mistake: if John McCain is elected, the fundamental direction of this country that we love will not change. But if we come together, we have an historic opportunity to chart a new course, a better course."

I believe that Obama felt that not passing any bill on this issue would be a worse situation than passing the compromise bill. Many may not agree. But I am a firm believer in the old adage, "The best is the enemy of the good" - sometimes you can't always get what you want but if you don't take the second best choice, you get nothing.

Obama may be looking at the big picture here - if the FISA bill didn't pass at all, many of the things being done to watch potential terrorists would end completely - leaving us vulnerable. And let's face it - the Republicans would have happily used his "no" vote to paint him "soft on terrorism." An absurd claim, but somehow these claims always manage to stick. Remember, if the man doesn't get elected in the first place, he won't be able to make any of the other changes we want him to make.

A recent Op-Ed piece in the Times by Morton Halperin explained further why the compromise bill may not be such a bad thing:

"Because I rejected the Nixon administration’s use of national security as a pretext for broad assertions of unchecked executive power, I became engaged with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when it was proposed in the early 1970s. And because I reject the Bush administration’s equally extreme assertions of executive power at the expense of civil liberties, I have been engaged in trying to improve the current legislation.

The compromise legislation that will come to the Senate floor this week is not the legislation that I would have liked to see, but I disagree with those who suggest that senators are giving in by backing this bill.

The fact is that the alternative to Congress passing this bill is Congress enacting far worse legislation that the Senate had already passed by a filibuster-proof margin, and which a majority of House members were on record as supporting.

What’s more, this bill provides important safeguards for civil liberties. It includes effective mechanisms for oversight of the new surveillance authorities by the FISA court, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and now the Judiciary Committees. It mandates reports by inspectors general of the Justice Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies that will provide the committees with the information they need to conduct this oversight. (The reports by the inspectors general will also provide accountability for the potential unlawful misconduct that occurred during the Bush administration.) Finally, the bill for the first time requires FISA court warrants for surveillance of Americans overseas.

As someone whose civil liberties were violated by the government, I understand this legislation isn’t perfect. But I also believe — and here I am speaking only for myself — that it represents our best chance to protect both our national security and our civil liberties. For that reason, it has my personal support."

I still don't like the whole idea of the legislation, believe me. But Obama's explanation does make sense when you think of him as a consensus builder, which is exactly what he has said he'd be. He's someone who tries to work within the system to make change, not be a revolutionary. The change may have to be done in small increments, the way most change is accomplished.

Regarding the death penalty, he had never said he totally opposed the death penalty. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," he said:

"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes--mass murder, the rape and murder of a child--so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. On the other hand, the way capital cases were tried in Illinois at the time was so rife with error, questionable police tactics, racial bias, and shoddy lawyering, that 13 death row inmates had been exonerated
Source: The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama, p. 58 Oct 1, 2006"

Admittedly, saying the death penalty would be appropriate for child rape, where a murder did not take place, takes it one step farther. But he's never had a completely anti-death-penalty stance. Personally, I do not believe in the death penalty under any circumstances. But it's not as if he has changed markedly on this issue.

His recent statement about late-term abortion alarmed many pro-choice people as it seemed to indicate that he believed it should only be allowed to protect the physical, but not mental, health of the mother. He later clarified that he meant simple distress should not be a reason but a diagnosed mental condition would be. (Depression would then qualify).

But this position isn't something new. According to, Obama said back in April during an interview:

"On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. All I've said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn't have that.

Part of the reason they didn't have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion have a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral. Oftentimes what they were trying to do was to polarize the debate and make it more difficult for people, so that they could try to bring an end to abortions overall.

As president, my goal is to bring people together, to listen to them, and I don't think that's any Republican out there who I've worked with who would say that I don't listen to them, I don't respect their ideas, I don't understand their perspective. And my goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate where we're always trying to score cheap political points and actually get things done."

He also said:

"I absolutely think we can find common ground. And it requires a couple of things. It requires us to acknowledge that..

1. There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that's a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about.

2. People of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what's right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.

And if we can acknowledge that much, then we can certainly agree on the fact that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion."

Some may be alarmed at the idea of him talking about reducing pregnancies. But I think even the most rabid pro-choice person (and I am one) would admit that having an abortion is not an ideal situation. Yes, it is often very much so the RIGHT decision, the BEST decision, and the most empowering decision to be made. But wouldn't it always be better if it didn't have to happen at all?

As for late-term abortions, they are extremely rare and usually only done for very good reasons; his wish to keep them limited to those very good reasons is understandable, in my opinion.

I urge you to go to this link and read the full section on Obama's positions on contraception, women's right to choose, and sex education.

What I'm seeing is that Obama is not a left-wing idealogue. He is open to other ideas. Maybe some of us would rather he would be more of a left-wing idealogue. But that's not who he is. He sees nuances. He sees shades of gray. I think this is all part of his persona, someone who came from two worlds and had to make peace with both.

What he has to watch out for is muddying his message. Up until now his message has been very simple: Change. Given the unpopularity of Bush and the ineptitude of the McCain campaign, that simple message has been working well for him.

If he starts dabbling in nuance and trying to explain complex moral opinions on hot-button issues like abortion, he is going to lose his advantage. Obama is a brand: he has to remain true to that brand. The media are not able or willing to indulge him in long explanations about his thought processes. They deal in short, succinct messages and are always looking for a headline.

This is something he will need to watch out for as the campaign progresses, especially if the McCain campaign gets on track and the 527s start their shenanigans.

I am still supporting Barack Obama with enthusiasm. I am also still trying to figure him out, and reserving judgment on some of these issues that have raised concerns among many of us.


two crows said...

hi, Mauigirl--
the problem I have [and have always had] with the warrantless wire tapping is the fact that a perfectly good option was available BEFORE Bush and Cheney got their stranglehold on the Constitution.

if there was a problem and the gov't needed to listen to a particular conversation in a hurry, they had 72 hours AFTER the fact to get a warrant.
this they failed to do -- over and over and over.

and, as to the immunity -- the records they were accessing from the telecoms were of PREVIOUS connections. the records weren't going anywhere.
there were perfectly legal ways of obtaining them. they chose the illegal ways and the companies went along with them.

imnsho, neither BushCo nor the corporations should get a free pass when they chose illegal methods over legal ones repeatedly.

and that is what [so far as I can figure out] the current bill gave them: a free pass.

s. douglas said...

Obama's explanations after the fact, seem contrived.

I didn't read his book. (We hear politicians talk about themselves enough).

He's not going to build a "Consensus" with Average Joe Wingnut, but he is going to lose support from Progressives.

Mauigirl said...

Two Crows, I agree, and as I said, I am not happy with the legislation; hopefully, though, in the future there will be more oversight and if this legislation will help that happen, I guess it's better than nothing. But you're right, it won't solve the fact that they are getting a free pass.

The whole situation with Bush and his cronies is very frustrating; if ever there was a president (and vice president and most of his staff) who should have been impeached, this one is it. And yet they are getting a free pass for everything. Sometimes it is very discouraging.

Fairlane, I am also concerned about that - I hope he doesn't try to go too far on this consensus thing.

John J. said...

Mauigirl, thank you for this post. It is well thought out and reasonable. I too am torn about the FISA legislation and Obama's votes but I also understand why he shifted. I will be doing a thorough break down of exactly what we are getting in this new legislation to hopefully shed more light on this horribly complicated issue.

Two crows, you are right about the 72 hour provision, but there are many other loopholes and inadequacies of the original FISA law that this does address much better. The biggest one, although it doesn't affect me, is the protections put in place for Americans abroad - before you could be spied on, American or otherwise, if you were not on American soil and the new legislation removes that. There is also the oversight provided most importantly by the Inspector General.

This bill still keeps the Bush administration on the line over this, as evidenced by the immediate ACLU law suit filed against Bush & friends. The problem is that the executive has many more legal options to quash these lawsuits than the telcos did.

Fairlane, an explanation written four years before the fact (in the case of the death penalty statement) is not contrived. On FISA, the "compromise" convinced a lot of Democrats, more than 50% all told.

Dorothy said...

Maugirl, thanks for the information I am watching as well. Every time a choice has to make it seems there are compromises and it's not an easy choice. I am leaning toward Obama as well, and none of the choices will be easy. Keep the information coming this one I'm printing to re read...

Dorothy from
remember to hug your gram

Christopher said...

Excellent post, Mauigirl.

I too, am still supporting Obama (who is the alternative, McCain?) but let's just say my enthusiasm is now muted.

The piling on effect has chilled many supporters here in New York.

- sucking up to AIPAC
- suggesting he will take military action against Iran
- the Death Penalty
- expanding Bush's "faith-based" initiatives
- campaign finance

All leave a sour taste in my mouth. I am in regular contact with Obama groups from Long Island, to NYC, to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and to Buffalo and let's just say that no one is drinking any koolaid.

For me, the most troubling Obama flip-flop was FISA. Remember, Obama voted against the original FISA bill, only to vote for the so-called "compromise" bill, which was much worse than the first bill and eviscerates the Fourth Amendment.

Obama can spin it until Frank Sinatra rises from the grave but I am left to conclude he wants the power the legislation affords him once he's elected. A very troubling sign.

Any legislation that weakens the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is bad law and shouldn't be approved. This is why a letter was sent to Bush and signed signed by more than 100 Constitutional law professors imploring him to not sign the FISA compromise bill.

Mary Ellen said...


Obama may be looking at the big picture here - if the FISA bill didn't pass at all, many of the things being done to watch potential terrorists would end completely - leaving us vulnerable.

That may be what he wants you to believe,but it isn't true! By law, our government can still listen in on phone calls from terrorists, but they need a court order to do it. In fact, they could still do it and get the court order retroactive after, I think...73 hours, maybe more. What the FISA bill allows is for the government to do a sweep of listening to ANYONE they want, this includes you and I. They could also listen to communication from opposing political parties. If you recall...that's what Nixon was impeached for. If this FISA bill was in force then, he would have been within the law to do his break in.

Beyond the wiretap immunity, the language of this bill includes this:

ASSISTANCE--The term 'assistance' means the provision of, or the provision of access to, information... facilities, or another form of assistance

PERSON--The term 'person' means...a landlord, custodian, or other person who may be authorized and required to furnish assistance...

IN GENERAL--Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no civil action may lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the court that...any assistance by that person was provided pursuant to a directive under sections 102(a)(4), 105B(e)...

ELEMENT OF THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY--The term 'element of the intelligence community' means an element of the intelligence community as specified or designated under section 3(4) of the National Security Act... [Ed. Note: That includes the FBI, CIA, NSA, Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and any other agency the president chooses.]

Let's translate that. A hotel manager who lets FBI agents into a guest's room to copy a laptop's hard drive in secret would not be liable. An apartment manager who gives Homeland Security the key to a tenant's unit to place a key logger in a PC would not be liable. A private security firm that divulges a customer's alarm code would not be liable. A university that agrees to forward a student's e-mail messages to the Defense Department would not be liable. An antivirus company that helps the NSA implant spyware in an unsuspecting customer's computer would not be liable.

No court order is required. And if an eventual lawsuit accuses the hotel manager or antivirus firm of unlawful activities, it'll be thrown out of court as long as the attorney general or the director of national intelligence can provide a "certification." The "certification" is, of course, secret--all a judge may say publicly is that the rules were followed, and then dismiss the case.

Obama is supposed to be a lawyer and a Constitutional scholar, but I can tell you this, you don't need to be a Constitutional scholar to know that this is not Democracy and this is not an acceptable bill.

Please, please, please, do not fall for this stuff about how he said he would reach out to the "right". This isn't reaching out to anyone, it's going back on his word that he would be "different". Did he not say that he would protect the Constitution? How is this protecting it?

Going back on your word of the primary campaign trail once you think you've got the nomination secured is not being an agent of change, it's being dishonest.

Randal Graves said...

fairlane's right on the consensus thing. I know many hope that such a thing could happen with many on the right, but it's never going to. Whatever happy face the Lotts and McCains and Gramms and McConnells put on is the face of a grinning serial killer before he sticks the knife in.

I'm sorry, I mean a grinning Islamic fundamentalist, the only criminals there are. ;-)

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thank you for this reasoned post. Sorry, but I don't have time to read the comments, so I won't be taking into account what anyone else said.

I think one thing people are forgetting is that very idealistic presidents often can't get things done. Think Wilson and Carter. And I don't think he's reaching out to the extremists on the right; he's going for the middle, which is where the majority are.

I don't agree with death penalty for any reason (and I'm someone who had a childhood friend raped and murdered).

I'm disappointed with FISA.

But I'm not disillusioned with Obama yet. Maybe not as starry-eyed, but I'm still ok with voting for him.

Mauigirl said...

John, thanks for your comments. It is very complicated and I have to say that I'd much rather Obama had voted no on FISA just on principle; as I said, I'm just trying to see the other side of it and hope for the best.

Dorothy, I'm glad you're leaning toward Obama...despite these issues that have come up the alternative is still so much worse.

Christopher, I is taking some of the sheen off my support as well but I am still keeping an open mind...we'll see what happens. I just saw on TPM that Obama has slipped in the polls. Maybe he'll realize his recent stances are hurting him.

Mary Ellen, you make good points. I hope he will realize how these new stances are making him look and if he doesn't change out of principle at least change his mind for political reasons. Because I'm still not going to vote for McCain and I'd like to feel good about voting for Obama.

Randal, I agree - the far right will never come to any agreement and it's futile for him to try with them. But he did get a lot of warnings that he wasn't appealing to the blue-collar folks and perhaps that is why he is making these overtures. Probably not a winning strategy though.

Ruth, you've said it better than I did - that is how I am feeling right now. Not as starry-eyed. But still OK. So far anyway.

enigma4ever said...

this was an excellent post- and really laid it all out - thank you...I don't know what to think- I am mixed on this...But John Dean laid all out on Findlaw, and explained that Govt Officials are NOT protected by the Compromise bill- that interests me...and also if there is any kind of trial or investigation- that the Companies would and will have to be that is encouraging- it is not civil suits I am interested in- I am interested in Criminal Violations by that option is still on the table- with the Compromised Bill...

but I am not happy about it....I remain ill-at-ease and concerned....BUT I also think Obama is a Smart man- that he plays Poker and Chess- and he is using Strategy...he has to if he is to actually win in November- we can not have a "close call" - there is a NO room for errors- and he must win MANY repug states to really sweep McSame off the has to happen...we can not have any more stolen elections...and at this point it is all about Winning- even people that are Indi's sitting on the damn fence....

sad but true...

( and I don't think it makes me a Bad American that I don't take enough of a stand on this issue- I dearly love Our Constitution..and I have faith and hope that Someone that taught Constitutional Law for 10 years cares as much as any of us......I know he cares more than Bush and Cheney).....

thank you for posting on this....

Mauigirl said...

Enigma, thanks for your comment. I too am hoping for the best with this. I am concerned about his stance on FISA and wish he had voted otherwise; and my concern also centers on whether his recent positions will cause him to lose votes rather than gain them. We will see how it goes.

Christopher said...


I commented somewhere (I can't recall where) that what we should be looking for is a dip in Obama's fundraising following his FISA flip-flop.

If his money-making machine slows or even grinds to a halt as people begin to think twice or three times about throwing money at him only to have him kick us in the teeth, then I think he could very well be in trouble.

If that happens, he has only himself to blame.

Fran said...

This is a good post and I so appreciate your trying to dig deeper rather than just react. It shows our depth and wisdom, which are two most appreciated and underated qualities.

His whole stance of late has made me very uncomfortable and if I zoom out instead of react here is what I find...

He is - for good or ill - trying to mediate against and around a lot of forces. Such are the ways of politics.

I am not sure however that what has been done in the end will work now. Perhaps all the political manuevering of the past 20 years has led us to this point.

Appealing to the broad masses and being a good leader seem to be completely incompatible. And I am not sure where that leaves us.

Sorry to sound so cynical!

Mauigirl said...

Christopher - I hear you - that is a big concern. I heard his fundraising was not robust in the most recent month since he said he would not accept public funds. That does not bode well, and it may be even worse after FISA. Maybe he shouldn't have been so hasty to reject the $84 million!

Fran, I agree - I think he may have fallen for someone's advice that he needs to reach the masses and that he needs to moderate his stances in order to do so. I think he is much better off having really enthusiastic people who agree wholeheartedly with him, than to try to be all things to all people. That is the danger of compromise, and in the end you don't get the masses OR the people who would have supported you. I'm tired of watered down principles. Let's see someone who sticks to their guns.

Remember everyone - Kucinich was the one who really represented my beliefs! I think Chris Dodd was another one whose beliefs mirror mine. Unfortunately none of the other candidates were as close to what I believe, not Hillary nor Obama.

John J. said...

Mary Ellen, clearly you did not read the bill. The legislation clearly states that no American citizen, at home or abroad, can be directly spied upon. ONLY foreign nationals overseas can be directly spied on without a court order. The way this bill was amended was that it allows the government to spy on foreign nationals calling American citizens without a warrant. I do find that part of it on shaky ground Constitutionally, but you are creating a straw man to get a rise. No apartment manager can let someone into your apartment without a warrant. No hotel manager can do it either. In fact, your rights overseas are better protected now than before because under the original FISA you could be wiretapped directly if you were out of the country.

The biggest gain of this bill was transparency. Now not only does the intelligence committee get to hear about it, but the judicial committee as well as the entire Congress through the inspector general. Theoretically, if this were in place before, Bush would have never gotten away with his original warrantless wiretapping.

The biggest issue I have with it is that it gives immunity to the telecommunication companies who knowingly broke the law because the president told them to. Any of their lawyers would have known better, and at least one company, Qwest, faced repercussions for not going along with it. Giving them immunity basically says that the Nuremberg defense is acceptable, unlike sixty years ago.

Personally, in balance, I would have voted against it. I don't think setting a precedent of allowing the law and the Constitution to be broken at the drop of a hat can be outweighed by any gains in transparency. Unfortunately for me, I'm not a viable choice for president. On this issue, I have to take the least bad; on so many more I get to choose the best. It won't change my vote, but I will continue to be very vocal for my rights.

libhom said...

There are a couple of things Obama said that you mentioned which were disturbing to me.

The FISA legislation was not a "compromise." Bush got everything he wanted. Under this legislation, warrantless spying can continue on American citizens for at least a year. The old FISA legislation gave any administration all the leeway they needed to spy on terrorists. This legislation is about spying on American political dissidents, not on terrorists.

Also, his claims that there is a moral dimension to abortion itself is just plain absurd. There is no factual or rational basis for anyone to have any moral objection to abortion.

The real moral issues are the misogyny and religious oppression behind efforts to ban and restrict abortion.

Obama has lost my support for now. He will have to end his shift to the right and at least become a centrist again before he will get my vote. Unless he improves, I will vote Green in the general election. Nobody takes my vote for granted.

Mauigirl said...

John J, thanks for your analysis of the legislation. I think you're right, in the end, it isn't worth passing this legislation if it flies in the face of the Constitution.

Libhom, I'm sorry Obama has lost your vote for now. I hope he can get it back, as McCain would be a much worse choice. I've heard Obama is slipping in the polls so perhaps he will realize he's gone too far to the right and course-correct.

D.K. Raed said...

Excellent post and comments! I recognize there are legimate concerns whenever Obama has to clarify his positions or vote on an actual issue. It's so much easier to talk in generalities or deal with overall concepts. That way you don't piss off this group or that. Reality is often much different.

For me, the overall impression of all these latest Obama revelations is that we are now sure he is not FAR LEFT. That fact that he never claimed to be nor ever espoused any far left ideals is conveniently forgotten. He is what he is. The only people who ever painted him as a far left liberal were republicans who were not saying it as a compliment. I am still happy with Obama being the Anti-McCain and will vote accordingly.

My lofty ideals end with the knowledge that a non-Obama vote is a vote FOR McCain. That is my reality.

Mauigirl said...

D.K., thanks for your comment, I think we are both in the same place. Well said.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this blog. You dig in and real chew things over in a thoughtful way. It's nice to see blog posts containing more than three paragraphs. Will definitely be back"

Mauigirl said...

Thanks for your comment and welcome, Glenn! I'll come check your blog out as well!